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It’s Funny Cause it’s True.

(Originally posted at Motion Graphic Designers’ Organization)

By now, you’ve probably all watched this at least a few times. I’ve posted it elsewhere and I’ve sent it along to a few hundred of my closest friends and colleagues. It’s spot-on, really well-written and hilarious. It seems like we all see ourselves in these “Vendor’s” shoes. We’ve all been there and we all recognize the situation.

The problem is that this DOES happen on a daily basis in our industry, which believe it or not, is the REAL WORLD. Unpaid pitches and Spec Work ARE the standard way of getting new business in advertising and Motion Graphic Design. Exactly what the woman in the hairdresser’s salon is asking for … work for free in hopes of more (at actual rates) later.

Even the AIGA’s recently re-written position on spec work is surprisingly toothless, although it does say that it “believes that professional designers should be compensated fairly for the value of their work and should negotiate the ownership or use rights of their intellectual and creative property through an engagement with clients.” But it also goes on to accept that, “In certain design disciplines, such as architecture, advertising and broadcast design, business practices differ and professionals have been expected to participate in speculative work. This usually occurs in fields where the initial design is not the final product, but is followed by extended financial engagement to refine or execute a design.”

I think this is a step backward. AIGA and associations like it should not accept that because this HAS become the business practice, that it is now ACCEPTABLE. In advertising and broadcast design, there may be considerable work to refine or execute a design AFTER a pitch, of course. But there is also considerable work, labor, man-hours, thought and effort put INTO many pitches in order to make them “presentable” to a client, and to reassure the client that the job can be done. It seems to me that this is defining pitching downwards, and lowering the standard.

And it shouldn’t be this way.

I actually took an unpaid pitch by myself recently for a national brand and spent a few days working on a treatment and a motion test in order to win the job. It would’ve been a great piece for my reel and portfolio – showing that I do actually do some commercial work, and don’t just work on PSST! films all the time. The job itself would’ve paid for the pitch and then some if I had landed it. Unfortunately I didn’t, so the time I spent on it was ultimately a loss, which is tough in this economy and tougher still if you’re an independent artist and don’t have other jobs to subsidize the pitch. And I haven’t heard back from the “client” again. So, you live and learn.

Asking for treatments for an unpaid pitch is not fair to anyone.

It devalues the work that goes into the pitch itself. How can work done in a rushed situation with no compensation really be the best answer for an agency’s needs? As Jeffrey Zeldman says, “Design is only partly decoration. Mainly it is problem solving.” I believe this to be true, even in our sector of the industry which seems to be mostly concerned with “making cool stuff,” recreating a photoreal world in 3D software and the technical challenges presented by new technology – but I digress.

Design is a process, not a product. The things we create are part of a conversation between client and designer to carefully craft a custom solution to the communication that they want to put forward. How that happens in a few days with a limited brief from the client and no interaction besides: “Ta-da! Here is our finished treatment” – is beyond me. These pitches are designed to impress the client with a visual solution which usually overpromises what can be achieved. It sets up expectations that may not be able to met when the project changes. And projects always change.

And why would a client ask a designer to prove themselves? Either they don’t know enough about you or they don’t trust you. Grant Blakeman wrote: “A potential client shouldn’t need to see free work on their own project to determine if a firm is capable of doing the project at hand. That’s what a portfolio is for.”

Unpaid pitches also raise the rates of other paid jobs. Because to spend time on unpaid work, a company has to put its own investment in the pitch at hand. Where does this come from? It has to be made by overcharging somewhere else. A friend told me his company probably spends $30K on each pitch they decide to accept. That $30K has to be made up somewhere. The lights don’t go on for free. And this inflates the real cost of doing Motion Graphic Design, Animation and film-making – across the board – so that the work produced is not proportional to its actual value. Doesn’t anyone see a problem with that?

There’s another problem. The ownership of the concept and any related artwork for the treatment that is sent in for an unpaid pitch must remain with the artist, because the agency is not buying it outright. It goes without saying that the losing pitches should be thrown on the scrap heap by the agency, but we’ve all heard horror stories of designs being recycled by in-house departments or even other companies. It happens. Publishing Houses do not accept unsolicited manuscripts for exactly this reason.

I will continue to do pro bono work for causes I believe in or for art projects that I enjoy and want to participate in (and own the copyright to!). But I can’t do other work for FREE. So I won’t. Not anymore. I will ALWAYS charge a pitch fee for any treatment I design and write – equal to the time it takes me to devise it. Like Harlan Elllison said, “Cross my palm with silver.”

A reasonable pitch fee which pays for the time and effort of the artists while preparing their treatment as well as buying the concept from them is the only fair solution. We all need to demand it. I’d like to see this happen as an organized industry-wide standard, from top to bottom. I’d like to see Brand New School, Buck, Digital Kitchen, Psyop, Imaginary Forces and all the rest of the studios not accept unpaid pitches or work that they create as a loss leader to land better paid work down the line. We should all be fairly compensated for our time and effort. I’d like to see Nike, BBDO, Weiden and Kennedy, NBC, MTV, and Nickelodeon pay for pitches and own outright the work that they request be created. I think it would be a more reasonable and equitable solution for everyone involved. Artists will be paid for the work they produce and not feel cheated or scammed into creating sub-par work that may never see the light of day. Agencies will own the work they request and won’t pay inflated fees to design studios because they will no longer be subsidizing other people’s pitches. Win-win.

It’s hilarious and sad at the same time that we all see ourselves in the Vendor-Client Relationship in the Real World film. But now let’s do something about it. This is the real world.

– Bran Dougherty-Johnson, Grow Design Work

Read on here:
No-Spec
AIGA: Position on spec work
Win Without Pitching Manifesto
Change Order: Give It Away Now
Kel Kelly Blog: It’s Not Agency, It’s Slavery
Speak Up: Spec Work Arithmetic
Ideas on Ideas: The Value of Canadian Design
Jeffery Zeldman: Don’t Design On Spec
gb Studio: Why We Don’t Do Free Spec Work

As I was writing this post, a friend forwarded me this clip from SXSW. It’s interesting for two things. 1. SXSW itself was running a spec contest for motion graphics for their conference this year. 2. The people defending spec work or in a “gray” area on this panel are Crowdspring – an amateur logo design site, and Threadless – a user-generated T-shirt design site, and Forrester Research, a consulting firm – who really just says spec work won’t go away, and there will probably be more of it due to the economy, but alsodoesn’t see it is an ethical issue. Okay, great?! Tell us something we don’t know. I do like what Lydia Mann from AIGA had to say at the end, and I bet David Carson said a lot more, but for some reason this was highly edited down.

Update: The Vendor-Client video now has its own site and its creators are now credited on the film on Youtube.

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6:26 pm June 5, 2009
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